We are laying in her bedroom surrounded by walls the color of morning sunshine. It’s time for her to sleep but of course she isn’t tired. She never is. Even when her eyes blink to a slow close before she forces open again, she’ll swear she isn’t tired. What she means to say, what she’s told me once or twice before in a rare moment of transparency, is that she’s afraid of what happens in her room when her eyes do finally close, what lurking monsters come out of hiding?
It’s strange, I think, for a child so young to spend so much time being tough and invulnerable. But I suppose I don’t know much about children outside of this one and her sister who follows behind her.
We read a story about a little girl on a farm and as it ends I glance over and can see she truly isn’t tired and so I settle down into the bed beside her. Down onto salmon pink sheets and satin turquoise pillows, pulling up the comforter to cover my legs and hips. The comforter is a swirl of vibrantly colored flowers set against a black background. The bedding doesn’t at all match the room or the theme it once followed, but she recently chose it for herself because she was spending her nights covering her old sheets and pillows with blood to “make them more beautiful” and we wondered together if some new bedding would help her to stop. So far it has.
I tell her the book reminds me of her and her Daddy and of how their mornings might look if he was still a farmer like he was when he was growing up. “You don’t know my life,” she huffs in response, half reproach and half laugh, the way she is when something serious might be about to emerge, if I play the cards right.
I prop my head on my hand and run tickling fingers over her belly lightly. “Oh I think I do!” I tease to the sound of her giggle. “After all, I’ve been around for just about every bit of it.” Then I am quiet and she is quiet and the room holds its breath for just a moment before I add, “though I suppose I don’t know what happens in your brain, or in your heart, because I’m only here on the outside and I only get to know the things you tell me.”
She stirs on her pillow and shifts so that large blue eyes find and hold mine. We’ve recently dyed her hair a deep purple and it draws every shade of blue to the front of her eyes. She wondered if dying her hair might make her feel more beautiful, and if that might help her stop making her face bleed. It seemed to be working, for a while. Now I notice a new spot where fidgety fingers seem to have been at play.
“Mommy, can I tell you something?” she asks. I, of course, nod, my entire life is trying to get this girl to tell me something. She turns away to stare at the ceiling above us.
“On the inside my brain is sad all the time.”
My stomach lurches, if only momentarily. “That sounds hard,” I say, making a note to keep my voice balanced and even, offering neither shock or dismay along with my empathy as I study the tiny features of a profile not yet five-years-old. “Some people do feel sad on the inside all of the time. I can understand that feeling.”
She glances at me, a measured look, am I playing with her? Seeing that I am not, she turns on her side to face me again and then seems to realize she cannot talk when she does so. She faces the ceiling once more. “It’s like my heart is happy. My heart says one thing and my brain says something else.”
She sits up and agitated fingertips flutter in a delicate staccato over her cheeks, tapping out a rhythm against her cheekbones and then down to her jawline momentarily before her hands drop to her chest. Stereotypy is the diagnosis for this. She is unaware of these movements but I have come to know them well.
A hand slams against her own chest to punctuate her words, “My heart says ‘be happy!’ and my brain says ‘no! be sad!’ and it’s like they have to have a fight about it!”
She looks at me again, bouncing a little on the bed, excitable four-year-old energy. Wound up, uncomfortable, anxious; she hates to feel exposed. She throws herself against me and buries her head into my chest, hiding her face while I rub her back.
I nod. I am calm and slow moving, the antidote to her anxiety and fear. “Wow. That sounds super hard to go through. It must feel uncomfortable inside of you when that’s happening.” She stirs, peeks, sits up.
I continue. “It’s not uncommon for someone to feel that way,” I say, “It is very possible for a person who feels like they are sad all of the time, or a lot of the time, to have very happy moments and then be confused.”
“Do you ever feel like that?” She wants to know, and yes, yes of course I do. I tell her as much. I tell her that I sometimes do feel very sad. And sometimes I feel very happy. And that I’m on medicine because my sadness got too big for me to handle, but that I do lots of other things in my life to stay healthy too, like take herbs and practice yoga and find joy and happiness wherever I can. And then I ask,
“When your brain and your heart have a fight, do you know who wins?”
If I had any hope that she was playing me for a fool, that she was seeking some bedtime attention from her psychologist-and-herbalist training mother, it is here that the hope abandons me. I watch as my question deflates her, as the tiny fighter spirit that defines her so strongly curls up and rests, for just the smallest of moments. Her shoulders curl inward and her head sinks down, her eyes grow dim and dark, her very breath seems to stop. Faintly she offers, “My brain.” And then again, louder, almost angry as she straightens back up, “My brain always wins!”
And though she has become herself again, I now know she is no liar. She throws herself against me once more and my hand returns to her back. It isn’t long before she sits up and a then a steady gaze meets mine. “Can you make a tea for me, to make the sad go away?”
It is too much. Her earnest exposing of herself, the certainty with which she is convinced I will have not only the answers but the cures. I take a breath and smile encouragingly, “There are many herbs that can help people not to feel sad. I can make a tea out of one of those for you. But if that is what is going on you would need to drink it every day.”
For a moment I talk about tea and herbs and sadness and all the while I wonder at how I am not overcome by an emotional reaction to this conversation. How can I lay in this bed next to this tiny-yet-growing child of mine and listen to these things she tells me and not lose myself to the sorrow of them.
I realize it is because I have finally come to accept and believe that an illness in our brain is not a life sentence, it is not beyond the scope of treatment and change. I can talk to her, I realize, because I can help her. I do not feel afraid of this conversation because I am not afraid of it.
As I talk she is staring at my eyes, blue like hers. Slowly her finger comes to her own face, to point just below her eye. “Is it because of my blue eyes?”
“What?” I blink at her perplexed by the question.
“My sadness,” she says, “is it because of my blue eyes? I was thinking maybe the blue stood for tears?”